James McCosh

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
James McCosh
James McCosh.jpg
11th President of Princeton University
In office
Preceded byJohn Maclean, Jr.
Succeeded byFrancis Landey Patton
Personal details
Born(1811-04-01)April 1, 1811
Ayrshire, Scotland
DiedNovember 16, 1894(1894-11-16) (aged 83)
Princeton, New Jersey
ChildrenA. J. McCosh

Rev Dr James McCosh LLD (April 1, 1811 – November 16, 1894) was a prominent philosopher of the Scottish School of Common Sense. He was president of Princeton University 1868–88. McCosh Hall is named in his honour.


A lecture room in McCosh Hall at Princeton University

McCosh was born into a Covenanting family in Ayrshire, and studied at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, obtaining his M.A. at the latter, at the suggestion of Sir William Hamilton, for an essay on stoicism. He became a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1834, serving as minister first at Abbey Church in Arbroath and then at Brechin. He sided with the Free Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843, becoming minister at Brechin's new East Free Church. In 1850 or 1851 he was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen's College, Belfast (now Queen's University Belfast).[1]

In 1868 he travelled to the United States to become president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He resigned the presidency in 1888, but continued to teach philosophy until his death. McCosh Hall (home of the English department) and a cross-campus walkway are named in his honor. The campus infirmary is named after his wife, Isabella McCosh. A school on the South Side of Chicago was named after him, but has since been renamed the Emmett Louis Till Math & Science Academy.[2]

Philosophical work[edit]

McCosh's position was mainly in the tradition of Thomas Reid and other Scottish common-sense philosophers. He denied that our beliefs about the nature of the external world rest on causal or other inferences from perceptual ideas, but held that they are the direct accompaniments of sensation, and thus not open to question. He also argued for the a priori nature of fundamental principles such as those of causality and morality. Our judgements and other cognitions are regulated by such principles, though that is not to say that everyone is aware of them; they can be reached through reflection on our experience, when they are recognised as self-evidently necessary. In his moral theory, especially, McCosh differed from many of his contemporaries in being relatively uninfluenced by Kant.[3]


McCosh's most original work concerned the attempt to reconcile evolution and Christianity. In 1874, Charles Hodge, the theologian and intellectual leader at the Presbyterian Seminary in Princeton, published What is Darwinism?, claiming that Darwinism, was, in essence, atheism. To Hodge, Darwinism was contrary to the notion of design and was therefore clearly atheistic. Hodge's views determined the position of the Seminary until his death in 1878. Hodge simply refused to accept that natural laws alone could create complex organisms that fit into their niches so perfectly and that evolution could explain origins. While he didn't consider all evolutionary ideas to be in conflict with his religion, he was concerned with its teaching in colleges. Meanwhile at the college across town (a totally separate institution) President John Maclean also rejected Darwin's theory of evolution. However in 1868, McCosh became president at the college. McCosh realized that much of Darwinism could and would be proved sound, and so he strove to prepare Christians for this event. Instead of conflict between science and religion, McCosh sought reconciliation. Insisting on the principle of design in nature, McCosh interpreted the Darwinian discoveries as more evidence of the prearrangement, skill, and purpose in the universe. He thus demonstrated that Darwinism was not atheistic nor in irreconcilable hostility to the Bible. McCosh thus argued that evolution, far from being inconsistent with belief in divine design, glorifies the divine designer (see for example his Christianity and Positivism). This aspect of his work found popularity among most Presbyterians clergy, who found his arguments useful in their attempts to cope with scientific philosophy.[4] The Presbyterians in America thus could choose between two schools of thought on evolution, both based in Princeton. The Seminary held to Hodge's position until his supporters were ousted in 1929, and the college (Princeton University) became a world class center of the new science of evolutionary biology.[5]

The debate between McCosh as president of the college and Charles Hodge, head of Princeton Seminary, during the late 1860s and 1870s exemplified the classic conflict between science and religion over the question of Darwin's evolution theory. McCosh offered the first public endorsement of evolution by an American religious leader. However, the two men showed greater similarities regarding matters of science and religion than popularly appreciated. Both supported the increasing role of scientific inquiry in natural history and resisted its intrusion into philosophy and religion. The debate vitalized the college.[6]

Main works[edit]


  1. ^ See Hoeveler, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition: From Glasgow to Princeton. (1981)
  2. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-05-30. Retrieved 2008-04-05.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ See Hoeveler, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition: From Glasgow to Princeton. (1981)
  4. ^ Hoeveler, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition: From Glasgow to Princeton. (1981)
  5. ^ Joseph E. Illick, "The Reception of Darwinism at the Theological Seminary and the College at Princeton, New Jersey. Part I: The Theological Seminary," Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, (1960), Vol. 38 Issue 3, pp 152-165; Part 2, (1960), Vol. 38 Issue 4, pp 234-243
  6. ^ Bradley J. Gundlach, "McCosh and Hodge on Evolution: A Combined Legacy," Journal of Presbyterian History 1997 75(2): 85-102,


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "McCosh, James". Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 206.
  • Douglas Arner, "James McCosh", in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy", ed. Paul Edwards (Collier Macmillan, 1967)
  • Hoeveler, J. David, Jr. James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition: From Glasgow to Princeton. (1981). 374 pp.
  • Paul Helm, "M'Cosh, James", in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, ed. Nigel M de S Cameron (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1993)
Academic offices
Preceded by
John Maclean, Jr.
President of the College of New Jersey
Succeeded by
Francis Landey Patton